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How UK insurance companies are selling already free health cover to elderly Brits in Spain

The death of a 72-year-old British man in Spain who was reportedly led to believe by his travel insurer that he had full private medical cover abroad has brought to light a prevalent and dubious scheme aimed at elderly tourists.

How UK insurance companies are selling already free health cover to elderly Brits in Spain
Photo: AFP

Up to 15 British insurance companies are selling UK tourists private policies that offer what’s already available to them for free as EU citizens through Spain’s public health system.

That's according to Spain’s Private Health Alliance (ASPE), who alarmed by the spike in cases involving tourists unknowingly stuck in Spain without private health cover, have decided to publicly denounce what’s happening in tourist hotspots around the country.

“For years these companies have been selling insurance policies that are empty of any content,” David Medina, member of ASPE’s board of directors, told a press conference.

The recent death of 72-year-old Brit Martin Blake, who had a heart attack while on holiday in Lanzarote, has brought to light the serious repercussions of these cases of “potentially systematic fraud”.

“Martin Blake died due to inaction on the part of the insurer when it came to transporting the patient to another hospital which was equipped to treat him,” Medina explained.

ASPE argues that whenever a supposedly insured person has health problems abroad, the insurance companies in question simply redirect them to a public hospital rather than a private clinic.

If they arrive at the ER of a private facility, “they force them to be moved to a public hospital, even if the patient is in no condition to be moved,” Medina states.

It’s also almost always left up to Spain’s public health system (and eventually Britain's NHS) to foot the bill for these transport costs and any other services that should be paid for by the so-called insurance companies.

According to Medina, the general argument they use is that private Spanish clinics “lack the means, they carry out fraudulent practices and they don’t even have medically qualified staff”.

In Martin Blake’s case, his family ended up paying €24,500 (£22,000) to have him flown over to the UK in an ambulance aircraft.

The Blakes were informed by doctors at one of Lanzarote’s public hospitals in the capital Arrecife that they wouldn’t be able to offer the elderly man the attention he needed, suggesting instead that he be moved to a private clinic on the Canary island or repatriated back to the UK.

But his insurance company, “capable of carrying out a diagnosis from 2,000 kilometres afar” Medina states sarcastically, thought the 72 year old was fine where he was.

“They seemed perfectly happy with the fact that my dad was costing the Spanish health system money,” Blake’s daughter told The Times at the time.

Sadly, Martin Blake passed away two days after his repatriation to the UK.

According to ASPE, every day there are on average one to four Brits who suffer the consequences of these scams while on holiday in Spain, costing Spain’s health system €4,000 per patient, money they never see again.

The same has happened to private clinics where doctors have agreed to treat patients in need, under the pretext that the clinics would be reimbursed by the British insurers.

“This has resulted in the loss of anywhere between €75 and €100 million for Spain’s private health industry,” ASPE secretary general Carlos Rus told El Mundo.

“They're making a killing out of old people, charging them very expensive policies and assuring them that they’ll be covered for pre-existing conditions,” Medina added.

“As they never pay any healthcare costs they’ve seen their profits shoot up, it’s illicit enrichment with total impunity.”

The organisation estimates that up to 300,000 Brits travelling abroad every year are being ripped off by paying high prices for “opaque” policies that offer exactly the same medical services as the European Health Card. 

Spain’s Private Health Alliance presented a case against the bogus insurers before Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) last November.

The investigation has reportedly not drawn many conclusive results thus far, but the company that Martin Blake was reportedly insured by is under scrutiny.

European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC) currently offer Brits and other EEA citizens free medical treatment (or at a reduced cost) if they urgently need it while visiting another member country.

If the UK leaves the EU without a deal on October 31 2019, British people's access to healthcare when visiting an EU country is likely to change. 

SEE ALSO: Will Britons resident in Spain still get healthcare after Brexit?


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How Spain could stamp out smoking

A fifth of Spain's population smokes on a daily basis. With such high numbers, here's how the country's pulmonologists propose to get smokers to quit.

Spain plans to get people to quit smoking
How Spain plans to get people to stop smoking. Photo: Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP

For many outsiders, Spain is a nation of smokers. 

The stats from Spain’s Ministry of Health show that 23.3 percent of men smoke every day in Spain, compared with 16.4 percent of women.

For both males and females, the highest number of smokers are aged between 25 and 34, meaning that it’s the younger population who are smoking slightly more than the older generations. 

Spain’s pulmonologists are now pushing for the country’s tobacco laws to be tightened, claiming that reform is needed after the last legislation was approved a decade ago.

READ ALSO: Spain warns against smoking and vaping in public to avoid Covid infections

Why is smoking such a problem in Spain and what is being done about it?

The latest stats from the Spanish Ministry of Health show that lung cancer, often caused by smoking, is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer in Spain, with 29,549 cases diagnosed so far in 2021.

Given these high figures Spain’s Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery (SEPAR) has proposed five measures to help get people to stop smoking.

SEPAR points out that every time anti-smoking legislation is reformed and things for smokers made more difficult, the prevalence of smoking decreases.  

Smoking on terraces was banned in some regions during the pandemic. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP
  • Price of tobacco to rise in 2022

The first point on their list is to raise the price of tobacco, which must cover all forms, from cigarettes to cigars, through to rolling tobacco, and electronic cigarettes.  

This first measure may soon become a reality as the Spanish government has already predicted that the price of tobacco will rise in 2022, after several years of stagnation.  

It is expected that tobacco will be responsible for almost a third of all special taxes received in 2022, equating to €21.8 billion.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “cheap tobacco” in Spain guarantees “a percentage of smokers above 30 percent”.

In Spain, the price of a pack of tobacco is around €5, which is much cheaper than in other countries. In Australia for example, a pack of tobacco costs around €22, and in the United Kingdom and France, each pack of tobacco costs around €12.4 and €10.5, respectively.

According to Dr. Carlos A. Jiménez Ruiz, pulmonologist and president of the society, the current anti-smoking law has “some deficiencies” that need to be addressed in order to develop legislation that is more effective and efficient, especially with regard to the prevention of tobacco consumption in young people, but also in helping smokers to stop smoking and in protecting the health of non-smokers. 

READ ALSO – Maps: Which beaches in Spain have banned smoking?

Besides increasing the cost of tobacco SEPAR proposes four other measures to get Spain to quit smoking. These include:

  • Banning the consumption of tobacco in public spaces, even outdoors
    During the pandemic, several regions approved a regulation to prohibit smoking on terraces. SEPAR proposes that smoking be prohibited not only in spaces such as terraces but also in sports stadiums, beaches, parks and bullrings, and that fines should be imposed for those who do not comply.

  • Establish generic packaging
    SEPAR also wants Spain to introduce generic packaging, which means no logos and images of the tobacco companies. This measure has also proven to lower the sales of tobacco in countries where it has been implemented, such as Australia and New Zealand. According to the latest statistics from the Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey around 11.6 percent of adults in Australia smoke daily. 

  • The regulation of other smoking devices
    Despite the fact that all products that burn tobacco such as cigarettes are already regulated, SEPAR believes that it is also necessary to regulate the sale, consumption and advertising of electronic cigarettes. This is because e-cigarettes have become particularly popular among young people. 

  • Promote help for those seeking to quit smoking
    The last proposal is the creation and development of special units in public health departments to help people to stop smoking and to put more funds towards these programmes. 

How does Spain compare with other European countries when it comes to smoking?

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while Spain does have a high number of smokers there are still several European countries that have more. The European countries with the highest number of smokers are Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary.

The latest European survey from 2020 shows that 42 percent of Greeks claim to be smokers, which is only slightly above Spain. 

On the other side, the European countries with the lowest number of smokers are mainly Nordic countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway.